If your primary revenue stream is advertising, and you cannot afford a single
salesperson -- you have a hobby, not a business.
We are continually told that small publishers do not have the scale to sell direct. We are told that those publishers cannot create direct relationships with advertisers. We are told that they have to sell through ad networks.
The popular notion that it is okay to not have your own salespeople is cute, idealistic, and totally wrong.
Every publisher has two businesses. The first business is selling readers on why they should visit your site, and the second is selling your advertisers on why they should spend money with you.
There are 5.7 million businesses with employees in the U.S., and all of them need customers. The trick is to figure out how to define and segment your audience to match the needs of enough of these businesses.
How to Win a Race to the Bottom
Convincing yourself that you do not need salespeople is to implicitly accept the idea that you are not differentiated from other publishers.
If you are a publisher that sells your inventory through a channel that aggregates your site with others, you are effectively telling advertisers that you do not value the uniqueness of your own content, or the importance of your own brand.
Selling your inventory in an aggregated channel is akin to Prada sending its clothes without labels to Neiman Marcus and telling the store to throw them with the rest of the clothes.
You may be in the right vertical, but you are selling a generic product. This is a race to the bottom.
If you demonstrate to customers that you do not value your inventory enough to tell a unique story, do not be surprised when you end up on the discount rack (or worse).
You Cannot Solve Problems You Cannot See
Customers do not buy advertising; they buy solutions to their problems. They buy a better image, more customers, and ego gratification, among other things.
If you put an intermediary between you and your advertisers, you squander the opportunity to solve their problems.
Worse, you lose customer feedback. There are few things more valuable than getting direct feedback from someone who cuts you a check. Having customers tell you how to improve your product engages them deeper with your business and makes you better.
You need a salesperson to get direct feedback.
Building the Story Together
Sales is really an exercise in storytelling. It is the opportunity to define a unique position in the market and differentiate your company from your competitors.
To tell a great story, you need someone who understands your business deeply and knows how to position it. This requires a salesperson.
The primary job of your salesperson is to creatively think about how to position your company to help advertisers solve their problems and achieve their goals. Is a custom ad unit needed? A sponsorship? A site take-over? A widget that helps their visitors accomplish something useful?
If your sales calls become joint brainstorming sessions with your customers on how to accomplish their goals, you can build the story together.
Long Live the Salespeople!
Salespeople are your public representatives. They are your listeners, your problem solvers, and your finders of opportunity. They represent the voice of the customer.
Salespeople are the single most underrated group of people in the advertising business. Unfortunately, they are also the most under-used.
All too frequently, salespeople are used as nothing more than glorified order takers. What a waste of their time and your money!
It is time to celebrate great sales. It is time to applaud the efforts of those who start every conversation by first understanding the goals of their advertisers.
So go hug your salesperson -- and damn it, if you don't have one, hire one.